Opinion: Turing, equality and internationalism

What have we contributed as part of the Coalition government?  Well one success (but there have been many others) is enacting the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 which gives  gay and lesbian people the  same right to marry as heterosexual couples.  I have severe doubts that a Tory majority government could have introduced this reform!

Whilst Britain has progressed to an open society where LGBT people are protected by law, many other countries like Iran, Nigeria and notably Russia have not.  However liberal Britain did not just happen overnight, and the changes in our society’s attitudes have taken many decades to come about.

Alan Turing, much in the news in the recently, lived through a period when ‘homosexual’ people in our country were treated as sick and mentally ill.  I have learned a lot over the past year about the genius of Turing and the suffering and torture he faced.  I visited London’s Science Museum with my boyfriend and parents, and the exhibition not only celebrated his scientific legacy of playing a leading role in breaking the wartime German enigma code and inventing the world’s first functional computer at Manchester University, but it also highlighted the pernicious homophobia he suffered throughout his life which ultimately was responsible for his tragic early death.

A few months later, I went to see ‘The Universal Machine’, a musical spanning the life of Alan Turing.  Not appropriate material for a musical you might say; but in a gentle and human way, the performance described another world where love between two men was forbidden, and where the state would prosecute, jail and abuse a man whose only crime was to have sex with another man.  All this seems so alien to us now but it still the life of many LGBT people around the world today.

That is why it is important that we as Liberal Democrats in a free and open society should stand up and fight for young LGBT people in Russia where the government has introduced new anti-gay laws that outlaw ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations around minors’ (almost sounds familiar).  The welcome international campaign against this law led by Stephen Fry and others, has led to the counter-reaction from Russia proudly stating that they are standing up for ‘traditional values’.  Even Russian pole vaulter, Yelena Isinbayeva, weighed into the row, by saying ‘we are afraid about our nation because we consider ourselves like normal, standard people’.  Unfortunately this view seems to be commonplace for many Russians and for millions of people around the world.

Nevertheless attitudes can and do change over time; and prejudice must be challenged.  My father grew up at a time when homosexuality was illegal in this country, but he and many in his generation can now see the wrongs that were committed to LGBT in the past.  The trip to the Alan Turing exhibition inspired my father to become an activist!  He wrote to the Manchester Evening News last month stating that a lasting legacy for Alan Turing would be to rename Manchester Airport as ‘Manchester Alan Turing International Airport’.  This would not only mark his remarkable achievements but would showcase Manchester as a ‘beacon in the world at eradicating prejudice to gays, lesbians and bisexuals’ and the renaming would help challenge the homophobia ‘still prevalent in many countries throughout the world’.

As an armchair gay rights activist I have been inspired by my father’s stand and by the pictures of people protesting in London on 10 August for LGBT rights in Russia.  Gay people should not be jailed, beaten up or killed for who they are.  Therefore we as Liberal Democrats must take a lead in challenging homophobia at home and importantly across the globe.

John Coburn is campaigner and executive member of Westminster and City of London Liberal Democrats  @JohnCoburn6


* John Coburn is an activist with Westminster and City of London Liberal Democrats

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  • Stuart Mitchell 22nd Aug '13 - 6:22pm

    Alan Turing – the one spy it’s OK for all Liberals to love.

    Your father’s suggestion of renaming Manchester Airport is superb and I hope the idea can gather momentum. It would be a much more fitting tribute than the drab dual carriageway named after him in east Manchester. If John Lennon (self-confessed wife-beater) and Robin Hood (er, fictional character) can get airports named after them then Turing certainly should.

  • John Coburn 22nd Aug '13 - 9:59pm

    Thanks Stuart. The timing of my article is a coincidence – but I agree he is the one spy it’s ok for all Liberals to love! Whilst making sure that Lord Sharkey’s campaign for Alan Turing to be pardoned is important, I think the renaming of Manchester Airport would ensure a fitting lasting tribute . Could a Lib Dem MP or peer take up this campaign?

  • Britain’s parliament equalised the age of consent in 2001 and had a law (Section 28) restrricting the promotion of homosexuality to minors as late as 2003. The US Supreme court legalised homosexual acts in the 13 states where they were still illegal in 2003. I can’t help feeling that as Westerners telling Russians that they need to get with the programme and keep up with the latest developments in our conceptions of morality, we are playing into the hands of the bills authoritarian sponsors who see homosexuality as something non-Russian.

  • William Jones 23rd Aug '13 - 8:11am

    John, It’s great to see another person like myself become inspired by Alan Turing and become so passionate about the great man’s life that you feel that you need to start a campaign. The renaming of Manchester Airport would be a fitting tribute to his scientific genius and greatness .

    I started the Number 10 petition that has lead to Lord Sharkey’s to the “Alan Turing Satutory Pardon Bill” in November 2011. The campaign is not just a pardon for Alan Turing but a recognition that the treatment of LGBT people at that time was monstrous with the use of chemical castration as a punishment for being found guilty of gross indecency. It is hoped that Alan Turing’s Pardon will pave the way for the 10,000s of people, now dead, who cannot have their sentences put aside by the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012 to be posthumously pardoned like Turing too. For any one interested I spoke about Turing on BBC Radio4’s the Philosopher’s Arms that was broadcast on 20th August 2013 – it can be accessed via iplayer until 4th September 2013 from this link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b038c7bq/The_Philosophers_Arms_Series_3_Moral_Blame/ The Turing piece is approx 23 minutes into the broadcast.

    I wish you success in your campaign to rename Manchester Airport perhaps we can help one and other on this venture.

  • David White 23rd Aug '13 - 1:18pm

    There can be no doubt that Alan Turing was a great man who contributed much to wartime victory over the Axis nations, particularly in the vital Battle of the Atlantic.

    Yes, Turing should be pardoned, posthumously, but it appears that it could be complicated by the convictions of many other LGBT people. Certainly, I know I’m not qualified to comment on that.

    However, renaming Manchester’s international aviation hub Alan Turing Airport is a wonderful idea. To compare Turing with John Lennon, Jomo Kenyatta, JFK, Dulles, et al, would be a chalk and cheese conundrum. But, Turing has as much a right as any of them to be granted an eponymous airport.

    Apropos nothing much, one of my A Level subjects was Pure Maths. At the time, I found it both boring and confusing. I was too young to appreciate it. Turing’s pure mathematics is a beautiful subject, akin to an art form.

  • Thanks for the comments. Great to hear more about your campaign William and look forward to listening to the Radio 4 documentary. And will be in touch about the campaign!

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